Even Edward-adoring Twilight Saga fans may get fidgety watching Robert Pattinson sneer through a series of sleepy seductions in this surprisingly passionless period piece.
Bel Ami, adapted from the novel by Guy de Maupassant, is a Dangerous Liaisons without the wit or wickedness that makes watching French-cut philanderering fun.
Pattinson is Frenchman Georges Duroy, who has a fortunes-changing encounter with former fellow soldier Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister) in 1890 Paris. Charles, now a well-to-do newspaper writer, gives the down-and-out Georges money to buy suitable clothes to attend a dinner party. Peasant-stock Georges may not know which knife to use with asparagus, but he manages to charm a trio of very different high-society madames at the event.
Charles’ coldly intellectual wife Madeleine (an ostentatiously raspy Uma Thurman) offers to help Georges write his own newspaper column. She also informs Georges that “I will never be your mistress,” an obviously ridiculous assertion that makes her irresistible.
The Forestiers’ married friend Clotilde de Marelle (a saucy Christina Ricci) has no such reservations. After seeing the seedy dump where Georges lives, she pays for a secret “love nest” apartment where the two can meet. When Clotilde tells him “Don’t bring your other women here,” he truthfully replies that she is his only lover, and the two seem genuinely content. It’s Clotilde’s young daughter who gives Georges the nickname “Bel Ami” (handsome friend), which will become a sarcastic putdown when used later by others.
Unfortunately, Georges’s sense of amour is soon outweighed by his ambition. Even the considerably older Virginie Rousset (Kristin Scott Thomas), conservative wife of the newspaper’s arrogantly smug owner (Colm Meaney), becomes a step on Georges’s social-climbing ladder.
Bel Ami‘s problem is that Pattinson is so passive we never get a sense that Georges is enjoying the proceedings. The character doesn’t seem to have his heart in being heartless. Georges seems more petulant than opportunistic, as if each new conquest is merely another tiresome duty fulfilled. The character is even more implausible when he has to show outright cruelty. His rude rejection of Virginie after making her fall in love with him is so unconvincing it’s almost comic.
Georges rationalizes his bad behavior by declaring that “there is no next life, and I am going to live.” Considering the joyless and frustrated figure we see onscreen, that defiant existentialism ends up sounding unintentionally ironic.
Working from a faithfully adapted screenplay by Rachel Bennette, first-time feature directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod give the melodramatic material too much restrained respect. Nobody wants to see a dour Don Juan, much less a mopey Machiavelli.
On the other hand, Twi-hards will get to see Pattinson’s bare backside in a Bel Ami love scene, which counts for something.
[Rating: 2 stars]